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January 14, 2020

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Fulsome tribute to supervisor in paper draws ire

An old paper published in the Journal of Glaciology and Geocryology (the most revered in this sector) has created quite a stir among layman readership these days.

Yes, our planet has reached a critical moment, with melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and human livelihoods at risk — but the paper has nothing to do with any of these.

Entitled “Theory and Practice of Ecological Economics Integration Framework” (in two parts), the paper by Xu Zhongmin, now a doctoral supervisor, devotes considerable space in paying fulsome tribute to Xu’s supervisor, Cheng Guodong, and Cheng’s wife.

As a matter of fact, according to Xu, the original title of the paper was “On the Sublimity of Mr Cheng, and the Beauty of Mrs Cheng,” which was probably more to the point. Apparently the paper had not drawn much attention it richly deserved since it was published on October 2013, until a few days ago, when it went viral on social media.

Following media uproar, Cheng, who happened to be the editor-in-chief of the learned journal, requested to resign from the job. The request has been granted. Cheng is also a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In responding to media inquiry, Cheng replied that Xu’s paper had been withdrawn, because it is not commensurate with the academic tone of the journal.

The entity responsible for publishing the journal has also suspended the job of the executive deputy editor of the journal. The Chinese Academy of Sciences vows to have a thorough investigation into the scandal. Xu really went too far in waxing so lyrical about the couple in this learned paper. In the introduction Xu wrote: “My supervisor, a Shanghainese … is a veritable pillar of the country, the mere sight of whom suffices to excite a sense of sublimity. Mrs Cheng is at once demure and dignified, whose softness and consideration hint at the sweetness of spring grass and the spontaneous overflow of elegance.”

“We sing praise of our supervisor, for you are the well-spring of infinity, and keep your disciples inspired. We feel attached to your wife, for her motherly care, which enables us disciples to luxuriate in her gentle stream.”

After dwelling at some length on the sublimity and beauty of the Cheng couple, the author goes on to propose how to hand down this legacy, with a view to chartering a universal developmental path for all humankind. Of course no paper of such a learned nature could go without graphics. In a graph detailing the “Harmonious and unified relationship of Mr Cheng and Mrs Cheng,” Cheng (with his Heihe River Program) and his wife (with her sacrifice in being a good cook at home) are in antithetical position, juxtaposed with the “Qinghai-Tibet Railway,” “discovering the greater good at the sight of profits,” and “the virtue of being ignorant,” all in a circular relationship.

In this paper Cheng is also cited as saying famously: “What matters is less about the capacity for liquor than the ability to exercise control,” properly attributed in the references to a remark Cheng made at a dinner in July 2012.

The 35-page paper was part of a key program supported by a grant of 2 to 3 million yuan (US$280,000-420,000) from The National Natural Science Funds (91125019), explicitly for comprehensive research on the water-ecology-economy integration framework in the middle reaches of the Heihe River.

Apparently, Xu has squandered part of the funds in paying tribute, in decidedly bad taste, to the supervisor and his wife. By all accounts, Xu might not get away with it so easily, this time.


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